I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about a particular issue in this world and I think made an important and worthwhile change of view. It’s not really a complete 180˚ turn, but I am asking questions in a different way, and feel like I am becoming more grounded about the issue. That issue is for a later post, because in trying to understand my change of heart, because I feel like my original stance is not wrong. After some soul searching I’ve come to the conclusion that the problem was that I was being too idealistic and it has lead me to think about ideals, and how we can sometimes get caught up in them and that it’s not always that helpful.
So what is an ideal? We all have them. We’ve all known people that are overly idealistic and while those people can be enjoyable to be around and make for engaging conversation, sometimes such people can appear a little naïve. I may be one of those kinds of people at times. The dictionary defines “ideal” as person or thing regarded as perfect, or a standard of perfection, a principle to be aimed at. I realized that the reason ideals can get us in trouble is because they do involve some personal vision of perfection. I have written about perfection before and how it can be an unhealthy concept since a) we all have different ideas of perfection and b) to my knowledge perfection has never been reached, so do expectations of perfection do us a disservice? I believe at times they can.
If by definition an ideal represents some state of perfection, one that either cannot be reached, or cannot be reached easily or quickly being dogmatic about your ideals can lead to rigidity in thinking, it can also put you in a “future mindset” too easily when problems exist in the here and now. For example you may hold the ideal that war is pointless, unnecessary and we should all live in peace. I love it, and I’m on board. But unfortunately there is war. And while I do believe that we may someday get to a place where we find better ways to resolve conflicts than through war, it’s not clear that will happen anytime soon, and there is always the possibility that war may always exist, despite how obvious alternate solutions might be. So given that there is war, we can’t get caught up in an ideal of world peace that we forget to treat soldiers humanely who have been injured physically and emotionally and give them the medical and psychological treatment they need during, and after their service. Hell even the immutable physical law, the Ideal Gas Law which describes the relationship between pressure, temperature, and volume of a gas doesn’t really exist. The law describes how a gas would behave under ideal conditions. Ideal conditions that while we can get close to we have been unable to reach. So it’s important to remember that ideals are just that, and not in anyway a truth we can find in the present.
There are many fine and lofty ideals out there. It’s easy to just start thinking, I wish the world could just see things my way and it would be a better place, but that isn’t likely to happen. But I don’t think ideals are a waste of time. The part of the definition of an ideal that I like the most is it being something to aim at. Ideals are like far away targets and it’s easy to imagine yourself hitting the target, but instead we should simply see it as a direction to head and not worry so much about whether we get there. Focus on the journey and pay attention to what is actually happening. It could be that solutions in the present don’t necessarily conform to your ideals but they are the right thing to do for the time that you live in.
Well between being a dad and a professor, blogging has taken a backseat. This of course doesn’t stop the ideas from flowing, so I just thought I’d get at least one of them out even though I’m having to wake up at 5:30 am to do it!
My blog post is once again inspired by my son. One of the things my son likes to do is drink, whatever we might be drinking, from our glasses. I find myself enjoying this quite a bit, because it’s clear that he wants to do things like we do. At times he will often try picking up our glasses and try to drink from them, with of course disastrous results, but his drive to be like us is clearly strong. The reason why I enjoy this so much though is because there is something wonderful just being around someone who is clear is striving each day to be more than they are. You might say, well of course babies/children strive to be more than they are, because they have to grow and develop those basic cognitive and locomotive skills. So I know I’m not saying anything groundbreaking, but it made me reflect on a number of things that I think have meaning at any age, and gave me some important reminders as I move forward in life both as an individual and parent.
As I was reflecting on this last night it occurred to me the importance of failure. While, as parents we marvel at our child’s successes I wonder how often we think of their failures. If I really start to think about it I know that every achievement of my
son is built on the back of many more failures. Whether it was a failure sit up, stand up, walk, or clutch an object in his hands, these activities failed numerous times before he was able to master them in any meaningful way. And it occurred to me that if you are not failing at anything right now, you quite simply are not growing. In these early stages of life the failure to success ratio is high. My son is constantly reaching in ways that exceed his grasp, but is undeterred by failure and this is something I find wonderful and inspiring. While he still needs help sipping from a drinking glass because he cannot lift it up to his lips in a controlled way on his own, I know that he will get it. Sometimes I wonder if I slow his progress by helping him though. He’d probably learn a lot faster if I let him fail more often, but of course the amount of spills I’d have to clean would be a drain on my time and resources. It takes away from other things that I could be doing which would be important for parenting or important for myself. And of course in some cases these failures might be detrimental to him as well. We need fluids, and if we are constantly spilling ours then we aren’t getting the sustenance we need. This is, of course, one of the things we must balance in life. Doing an activity that we’ll fail at is an energy cost, and thus we must have energy in excess to afford to fail. Growth implies risk, and risks can be costly. That doesn’t change the fact that without taking risks we tend to stagnate.
So what deters us from this completely necessary quality of risk? Since risk involves the uses of resources and energy, there are environmental factors that simply put limits on the risks we can take. The beautiful thing about children (and often scary at times) is that they think nothing of the risks they take. No matter how many times he fell trying to walk, or get down from the sofa or bed, he still did it. As we grow and become aware of more things we learn restraint. If I lived in one of many places in Africa where clean drinking water is scarce, one of the things I would make dead sure of is that I didn’t leave a glass of drinking water within in reach of my son, because drinking water is precious and we could ill afford to have any spilled. So the risks we are willing to take or let others take are governed by the energy and resources (or the perceived energy and resources) we have available to us. I think this is something we forget. It is very common in the world to denigrate the poor and criticize them for not lifting themselves out of their poverty. Since risk leads to growth, and risk is at least partly a function of the security of energy and resources in our lives, those that have limited resources simply cannot achieve as much as those of us with privilege can achieve. While there are always remarkable stories of people crossing that boundary, on average a person who starts off with more will always have the potential of achieving more. Therefore we’d be well served to stop judging those in poverty and that they require our compassion to help raise them up. Should I wish to let my son fail at drinking water from a drinking glass I have the resources to supply him with endless amounts of water. It seems that the path to a better society comes from those of us who have an excess in resources finding a way to create an environment for those in need to have some minimum level of security so that they feel safe to take risks.
Our inability to take risks can also be impacted by our memories of failures. There comes a point where feelings of failure can be somewhat traumatic. It can make us not want to try something again. I have postulated, not sure if it’s true, that one of the reasons why babies don’t form a lot of memories is because if they did they might be scared to take risks. This is something that a young child absolutely has to do just to be able to master basic movement and communication skills. My son has fallen hard at times, and after a few minutes he is back trying the same thing again. This short term memory seems a blessing at this age but it won’t last forever. Of course if we reflect on failure we would see that it is teaching us something, and that we probably should worry about failure a lot less than we do. If you’ve tried something a number of times and still failed, well maybe the lesson to be learned is to not do that activity anymore. That in of itself can be a success. Learning about what you can’t do, moves you in a different direction to try things that you have a better chance of succeeding. If energy and resources are finite then there is wisdom in not continuing in an activity once we realize that it is beyond us. This means the only truly detrimental failure is the failure to never try.
It’s easy once you get to the age of 40 to play it safe. Likely your life is already full of failure and it’s simple to say “enough is enough” and just survive. I was joking yesterday with my wife, given the extremely fast rate my son is figuring out how to use an iPad (and believe me we don’t give him a lot of access) that maybe that’s why kids always have to figure out technology for their parents, because once you have kids it’s easier to stop learning and let them (who learn things much faster and easier than you) do it for you. Ultimately this is not the type of person I want to be. I want to continue to grow, and over the last couple of months I’ve realized there are numerous areas of personal growth that I want to achieve and while I may like myself, to rest on my laurels would also be a mistake. I watch my son attempt tasks that are beyond his abilities and must remind myself that I must never stop trying to push my limits, and to take chances doing things that have a high chance of failure. It’s surprising how cautious we become as we age. It seems that perhaps the real secret to staying young is to maintain at least a shred of fearlessness and at least an ounce of self-confidence that defies what we think we know of ourselves. I must also remember to turn my parental instincts in a way that supports experiences of failure for my son. I’m not saying that I would intentionally cause him to fail, but only to remember that loving my son is not about preventing him from ever failing, but rather allowing him to fail, and stepping in at the right time to help him learn the most from his failures. So smile at your failures. They got you this far, and here’s to hoping you have many more.